Friday, February 21, 2014

If Michael Sam Can Play, He Will Play. But Where?

It was supposed to be the Johnny Manziel Show, but the talk of this year's NFL Draft will center around openly gay University of Missouri pass rushing specialist Michael Sam.  His carefully prepared rollout of a public acknowledgment included placed stories in choice outlets designed to spark questions and, most of all, buzz.  Questions and speculation runs the spectrum from where will he be drafted to whether he will be accepted.

First of all, plain and simple, if Michael Sam has NFL talent, he will get an opportunity.

At 6'2, weighing 255, his height could be an issue. Ideally, NFL squads like pass rushers with more length than Sam offers.  He, however, excelled in the Southeastern Conference against NFL ready linemen.  If anyone had any questions about whether or not he has NFL talent, this fact alone answers it.

The bigger question is if he will be accepted in an NFL locker room.  Also, how will his team handle the blistering press attention?  Some compare his possible entrance to Jackie Robinson, others see loose similarities with Tim Tebow and even Manti Teo.

Former NFL linebacker Lavar Arrington on his drive time show in Washington DC's WJFK insisted that Sam faced many of the same pressures and potentially much of the same hostility as Robinson.  The most vulgar in opposing fanbases will never let him forget his sexuality.  Then again, you also have the viral video of a Jets fan from last season screaming for his own team's quarterback to tear his ACL. Fans will be fans.  Sam will get the taunts, no doubt.  Certainly they will sting in a way that no one outside of his situation could imagine.

No one can predict how a specific locker room might react, but certainly executives do fear the scrutiny and potential issues.

That is why Sam will likely be drafted lower than he should, but will most likely end up with a winning organization.

Winning organizations generally forbid chaotic locker rooms.  Witness the report on the hapless Miami Dolphins that described continual meltdown over several years.  Remember how Tim Tebow, personally the least offensive player one can imagine, polarized the locker room of the New York Jets.  Extra attention for non football attributes can rub people the wrong way, particularly on a losing team. No matter whether the player is gay, an evangelical Christian, or a famed balloon artist, there will be jealousy.

Winning organizations establish professionalism.  Players and coaches do not become automatons, but they do have a clear understanding of what they can and cannot do or say.  They want to stay with a winner, so they conduct themselves accordingly.  So Sam will likely end up playing for one of those well-established winners like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, or San Francisco 49ers.  Winning stems from a professional attitude established at the top.  They also specialize in handling the press and putting public attention in its proper place.

And that would be the best possible outcome.  On a team like the Steelers or the Patriots, Sam simply becomes a player doing his job.  That was certainly not his intention when his people orchestrated his announcement, but that would be the best result for both Sam and whatever team drafts him moving forward.

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